Jonathan Wilson has been busy since 2013's Fanfare. He's produced two albums by Father John Misty (Josh Tillman), who returns the favor by appearing here, and records by Conor Oberst, Dawes, and Karen Elson, as well as playing on Roy Harper's Man & Myth and Roger Waters' Is This the Life We Really Want? He's also musical director of Waters' touring band. Like his previous outings, Rare Birds is drenched in the sounds of his record collection, but this time around he's cast his sonic net considerably deeper and wider than the Laurel Canyon and yacht rock-isms so entrenched in its predecessors. It's sprawling at nearly 80 minutes, and lavishly packaged -- especially the LP. While the aftermath of a broken relationship is the obsession behind these songs, Wilson insists this isn't a concept record. However, the truth of the matter is that it might as well be, as he charts the various stages of attraction, desire, hope, love, conflict, and romantic dissolution.
To aid him in this massive venture, he's enlisted a large cast of musicians who include pedal steel ace Greg Leisz, drummer Joey Waronker, and a host of backing vocalists -- including Tillman and Lana Del Rey. Wilson's love of mid-'70s Fleetwood Mac and Trevor Horn is entwined on the glorious "Loving You," with proto new age pioneer Laraaji on zither and duet vocals as Del Rey poignantly backs them in a soulful drift. "Trafalgar Square" is saturated in Wilson's love of Tony Visconti's work with David Bowie and T. Rex. Another album highlight, "There's a Light," pays a sideways homage to ABBA's spirit-lifting pop. Jeff Lynne's Beatles worship frames "Miriam Montague" -- complete with a string trio. Wilson combines his respect for Tim Friese-Green's work with Talk Talk while simultaneously offering tribute to Don Henley's "Boys of Summer" in the same track. In the haunted "Living with Myself," warm, spacious, bubbling synths and glorious backing vocals by Del Rey carry the foreground as Leisz's lap steel swoops and whines in the margins. Trevor Horn also proves an inspiration in the pulsing layers of cagey synths and assorted other keyboards and strings on "Hard to Get Over." "49 Hair Flips" reflects the influence of Talk Talk (circa Colour of Spring) and late composer Arthur Russell as well as early girl group rock & roll. Its lyrics engage raw sexuality, the perils of social media, and forlorn longing. They don't quite get it; in fact, they point at the problems with Rare Birds. Wilson clearly needs an editor: only three of its songs are under five minutes; his lyrics are so full of images, often in jarring juxtaposition to one another, that they're clumsy. It would also be nice -- next time out -- to hear Wilson leave his record collection on the shelf and rely on his own production inspiration. The guy has the chops to stand on his own. These are quibbles, however. Rare Birds is dizzying in ambition and (mostly) dazzling in execution. It offers hours of enjoyment to anyone who takes it on.